Hundreds of thousands without shelter in Myanmar: UN
Tuesday, 06 May 2008

REUTERS, Yangon - Hundreds of thousands of people have been left without shelter and drinking water in military-ruled Myanmar after a devastating cyclone tore through the Irrawaddy delta, a United Nations official said on Monday.

Aid agencies scrambled to deliver plastic sheeting, water and cooking equipment from stockpiles in the former Burma. The government says at least 351 died in the cyclone, which tore through the delta region on Saturday before devastating Yangon.

That death toll is likely to climb as the authorities make contact with hard-hit islands and villages in the delta, the rice bowl of the impoverished Southeast Asian nation of 53 million.

"It's clear that this is a major disaster," Richard Horsey, of the United Nations disaster response office in Bangkok, told Reuters after an emergency aid meeting.

"How many people are affected? We know that it's in the six figures. We know that it's several hundred thousand needing shelter and clean drinking water, but how many hundred thousand we just don't know," he said.

The International Federation of the Red Cross said teams were trying to assess the damage and aid requirements in the five declared disaster zones where some 24 million people live. "We are issuing water purification tablets, clothing, plastic sheeting, cooking utensils and hygiene items.

We're trying to mobilize portable water from local businesses," Michael Annear, head of Red Cross' Southeast Asia disaster management unit.

"We're preparing to send more stuff into the country. We have not been restricted," he said. A new policy imposed on foreign aid agencies in 2006 requires travel permits and official escorts for field trips. It also tightened rules on the transport of supplies and materials.

"That is the existing situation for international staff. The way most agencies work is they use national staff who have more freedom to move," Terje Skavdal, regional head of the U.N. office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), said. "We will have a dialogue with the government to try to get access to the people affected."

It is not know whether Myanmar, the world's largest rice exporter when it won independence from Britain in 1948, will need to import emergency rice supplies.

If it does, it is likely to inflate yet further the already sky-high prices of the staple. The World Food Programme says it has stocks of around 500,000 tonnes inside the country, but not near Yangon.


In the former capital, many roofs were ripped off even sturdy buildings, suggesting damage would be severe in the shanty towns that lie on the outskirts of the city of 5 million people.

State television was still off the air in Yangon and clean water was becoming scarce. Most shops had sold out of candles and batteries and there was no word when power would be restored.

In one western suburb, a group of 100 monks led efforts to clear streets littered with fallen trees and debris from battered buildings, a witness said. "The clean-up is beginning but this will take a long time.

The damage around town is intense," one Western diplomat told Reuters from Yangon, where the airport reopened on Monday.

State media said 19 people had been killed in Yangon and 222 in the delta, where weather forecasters had predicted a storm surge of as much as 12 feet Only one in four buildings were left standing in Laputta and Kyaik Lat, two towns deep in the rice-producing region.

Some 90,000 people were homeless on the island of Haingyi, around 200 km southwest of Yangon on the fringe of the delta. However, the carnage left by Nargis has not derailed a May 10 referendum on a new army-drafted constitution.

"The referendum is only a few days away and the people are eagerly looking forward to voting," the junta said in a statement confirming the vote would go ahead as planned.

The charter is part of a "roadmap to democracy" meant to culminate in multiparty elections in 2010, but critics say it allows the army to retain an unacceptable degree of power.

Bunkered down in their new capital, Naypyidaw, 240 miles to the north of Yangon, the junta's top brass has not formerly responded to an offer of international assistance.

But Myanmar's Minister of Social Welfare told U.N. officials help may be welcomed, depending on the terms, Skavdal said. "I think it's a positive sign.

As long as we are in dialogue it is good," he said. Shunned by the West for its detention of democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi and dismal human rights record, Myanmar has been the target of Western sanctions for years.

It receives far less foreign aid -- about $2.50 per capita -- than regional neighbors Cambodia ($47) and Laos ($63) and below the $14 average for low-income nations.

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